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When her parents die when she is still very young, innocent Ruth Hilton is sent to the city by the guardian she does not know. In the city she is to learn the trade very common for young girls during this time, that of the seamstress (Ugoretz), but events take a drastic turn when she becomes noble Mr Bellingham's mistress. Only 16 years old, Ruth is thrown into the for her unknown adult world and in this world, she cannot separate right from wrong and is thus considered to be a sinner. However, life is never simple and straightforward and in this essay, I discuss the moral aspects of the novel to decide if Ruth really is a bad person.
What do we know about Ruth? Well, she seems to be very innocent and not at all aware of Bellingham's intentions, maybe due to the fact that she was left an orphan at such early an age. Like in most literature of this era, descriptions of sexuality are left out and the only way we find out that Ruth and Bellingham have a sexual relationship (although of course we guess that this is the case) is when we are told that Ruth is pregnant, but we are never told whether she knows how this baby was conceived. My guess is that she had never been told about sexuality and knew little about marriage, else a religious and piteous girl like her would never have been this blind to what she was doing. She knows that her relationship with Bellingham make other people talk, but she does not seem to understand why. She could not have known how wrong it was and that this really is the case is confirmed by Ruth herself: "I was very young; I did not know how such a life was against God's pure and holy will - at least not as I know it now" (p 246). When she learns that she is expecting a child, her only wish is to make this child grow up to be good and religious. She promises God that she will try only to do good deeds to make up for her sins, a promise she keeps during the rest of her life.
The real hero in this novel is the Dissenter minister Mr Benson, who feels for Ruth and wants to protect her.
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But, like in real life and most novels, it is not possible to completely run away from your past. Suddenly, she meets her former lover again and he proposes to her. She shows the reader and Mr Donne (Bellingham, who has changed his name and is now involved in politics) that she has grown, both mentally and physically, since their last encounter, by turning down his proposal. "I do not love you. I did once --- I could never love you again. All you have said and done --- has only made me wonder how I could ever love you" (p 249). After dismissing him, Ruth continues not to think of herself, but of her son, and is anxious that Mr Donne will make claims on his son, since according to the laws of that time the father had all legal rights for the child, legitimate or not (p 239).
When her employer Mr Bradshaw hears about Ruth's past, she immediately fired from her job as governess and any future contact with his girls is forbidden, since he does not want her to be a bad influence on them. All of a sudden, his former praise over Ruth is forgotten and all he can see is a fallen woman with an illegitimate son. He starts accusing her of being a bad person, but when Ruth most needs someone to stand up for her, Mr Bradshaw's eldest daughter Jemima is the one with the courage. Although Jemima has hated Ruth for a long period, she realises that Ruth cannot be as bad as she is described by the gossips, since she has known her for years and has never seen anything wrong in her, and willingly defends her in front of Mr Bradshaw. This is why I find Jemima the most credible and human character in the novel.
Rejected by society and her old friends, Ruth hides from the public for years before finally starting a job as a sick-nurse. Her work is much appreciated and even a blessing when the typhus fever hits town and she volunteers to matron the fever-ward at the hospital. Her work there makes her regain people's trust and love for her. It seems like they finally understand that she has never been a bad person:
Such a one as her has never been a great sinner; nor does she do her work as a penance, but for the love of God, and of the blessed Jesus. She will be standing in the light of God's countenance when you and I will be standing afar off. (p 351)
Like Helen Graham in "The tenant of Wildfell Hall", Ruth takes on the duty of nursing her former lover when he is ill even though there is no love between them anymore. Helen Graham gets her reward when her husband dies and she is free to go on with her life, but Ruth is rewarded by being freed from sin by her good deeds. Unfortunately, she will not live to experience this change in people's opinion.
Ruth is all the time described as a beautiful and religious young woman, who has no trouble deciding what is wrong and what is right. Therefore it seems unlikely that she would have engaged in this relationship with Mr Bellingham if she had known that it was considered so wrong. But is it not strange that it is Ruth who is believed to be the wicked one, and not the man who seduced her? Even Ruth herself seems to think that she was the only one doing wrong. According to Elizabeth Lee in Victorian Theories of Sex and Sexuality, "Women had to be held accountable, while the men, slaves to their catabolic purposes and sexual appetites, could not really be blamed. Once led astray, she was the fallen woman, and nothing could reconcile that till she died". This explains why only Ruth is blamed for her affair with Mr Bellingham and also why she has to die in the end of the novel. I see nothing wrong in Ruth, but I consider Bellingham to be one of the bad persons in this novel, the man who is the reason to Ruth's fall. First he seduces her and leaves her with an illegitimate child, which indirectly is the reason to her taking on the job as sick-nurse (the only one she could find). Her goodness makes her nurse him when he is ill and he is then the one who infects her with the typhus that kills her.
Ruth is a victim of circumstances and lack of knowledge, but as soon as she is able to make up for the mistake she has made, she sacrifices her own happiness in order to secure the happiness of other people. She steers away from the path of the fallen woman and shows us that we can change and are not bound to repeat our mistakes.
Gaskell, Elizabeth: Ruth
Ugoretz, Beth R.H.: Slaves of the needle - The seamstress in the 1840s.
http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/gender/ugoretz1.html (Internet). Nov 13, 2000
Lee, Elizabeth: Victorian Theories of Sex and Sexuality. http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/gender/sextheory.html (Internet). Nov 1, 2000